Condo set to loom over graves of legendary samurai spurs protests



The “47 ronin,” samurai who inspired the long-loved saga of loyalty and honor eulogized in films, books and plays, are fighting a new kind of battle in urban Japan.

An apartment complex is going up next to the curved tile-roofed Sengakuji temple where the three-century-old graves of the ronin, or masterless samurai, lie. The stone monuments, standing barely waist-high, are known here and elsewhere as a humble but proud testament to sacrificing one’s life for what’s right.

The Buddhist monks who are still praying for the souls of the ronin, visitors from near and far, and the neighborhood residents including those who run souvenir stores are all aghast. Nearly 2,000 people have signed a petition demanding a stop to the construction. Huge protest banners are up by the gate.

Plans show an eight-story condominium, measuring 24 meters (79 feet), dwarfing the graves and placing the temple’s main wooden gate in its shadow. Building has already begun and construction is expected to be completed later this year.

“People who come and pray here, including tourists from abroad, can’t believe why this is being allowed,” said Kenmyo Muta, a priest at the temple. “Anyone can see what it will do to this beautiful place.”

The plight of the graves highlights the recurring struggles between commercial development and the effort to preserve history.

Although many European and American cities work hard to maintain the old, Japanese cities often are a hodgepodge of cutting-edge futuristic buildings next to kitsch, if not slumlike, chaos, exemplified in sign posts galore and cheap erratic construction.

“What we are seeing here is the tragically common, ever repeating story, where a private gain is valued higher by the existing laws and planning regulations than the preservation of a public historical asset,” said Christian Dimmer, assistant professor for urban design at the University of Tokyo.

Similar conflicts are unfolding around Japan, Dimmer said, especially as new earthquake-resistant technology allows for ever taller construction, setting off controversies such as whether from-the-street views of Mount Fuji might get blocked.

No illegality is involved in the condominium’s construction. The neighborhood around the temple has stayed quaint only because residents voluntarily kept buildings no higher than three stories.

There are no laws in that area to restrict the height of buildings, even if they’re right next to a site designated by the government as “historic sites, places of scenic beauty and natural monuments,” as were the graves since 1922.

Damaging such a site is punishable by law. But not building right next to it, said Takahiko Noguchi, a city-planning official at Tokyo’s Minato Ward office.

“We do see the cultural heritage site as our treasure, and we want to protect it,” he said. “But we cannot force a change or a stop to the plans.”

Although protesters are asking the ward to buy the property and make it part of a tribute to the 47 ronin, Noguchi said no such funding decision was likely, as money must be allocated to projects that benefit the entire ward.

The construction company Daiichi Realter Co. in Tokyo declined to comment.

Armand Piscopo, a 44-year-old salesman from New York, and first-time visitor to Japan, said he had known about “Chushingura,” as the story of the 47 ronin is called, for a long time.

Overshadowing the temple with an apartment block is a “shame,” he said, after inspecting the graves through the wafting smoke of burning incense.

“This should be kept exactly the way it is,” said Masao Yamamoto, 64, a retired electronics engineer who came from Shizuoka Prefecture to see the graves, especially that of his favorite ronin, Horibe Yasubei, an orphaned master swordsman.

Horibe and other samurai, including 16-year-old Oishi Chikara, were ordered to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide by disembowelment, en masse. They had known that would be their end, because they had taken the law into their own hands to avenge the wrongful death of their lord.

What adds to the appeal, especially in conformist Japan, where the individual is often sacrificed for the team, is how they kept plans for revenge secret for nearly two years to avoid their plot being uncovered, and went about their daily lives, enduring taunts about cowardice.

Muta, the priest, calls it “the path to do the right thing.” Even today, everyone is searching for that path, whether you are a father, schoolteacher or politician, he said.

“Three hundred years ago, they forged ahead on that path,” he said.

On a snowy Dec. 14 in 1702, or so the historical legend goes, the ronin, since played by stars such as Toshiro Mifune, Keanu Reeves and Kanzaburo Nakamura, donned makeshift armor and, beating on drums, stormed the palace of their powerful high-ranking enemy.

Later, the ronin paraded through the streets of Edo, as Tokyo used to be called, dangling the bloody head of their victim from a spear, to the cheers of onlookers who perhaps knew, even then, that the 47 ronin were destined to become eternal heroes.

Near their graves still stands the old well, where the head was washed before it was presented before the grave of their lord.

“I wonder what has happened to Japan that it can’t protect its own culture,” said Akane Yoshida, whose parents and grandparents run a sweet-sake shop by Sengakuji, and who leads the protests against the condo construction. “I am outraged.”

  • keratomileusis

    Don’t blame foreigners for destroying Japanese culture. This is home grown, unless the developer is a corporation. Why, Kim Jong Un may even be a stockholder for all you know…

    • tomado

      Japanese “culture”? What does that mean?

      • keratomileusis

        The beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time.

      • tomado

        Destroying nice views seems to be very much part of Japanese culture if we stick with the above definition.

  • Max Erimo

    Like most other historical things in Japan the 47 samurai remain basically unknown to the ordinary citizen. This is because Japanese history, modern or ancient is not properly addressed in the school curriculum. Japan has such a rich, exciting, dramatic, traumatic, terrifying history that should be given more time in the curriculum.
    I am only glad that I paid my respect to these brave men in May last year. The sun was bright and they lay in peace. After the building is erected the will lay in constant shade in not such a peaceful environment.

    • tomado

      Why do you respect them so much?

      • Max Erimo

        They had the spirit, courage and the will to fight for what they believed.

      • tomado

        So did the attackers in Paris. What was it that these “samurai” believed in? How do you know what they believed in? Why was what they believed in a good thing to fight for?

      • Tomoko Endo

        Many respect for thier loyalty.

      • tomado

        I don’t say they were terrorists. I have no idea. I’m asking because I’m curious. I don’t respect people for loyalty unless their loyalty is to human progress and dignity, etc. I don’t respect people for a willingness to fight for what they believe, unless it is a belief in compassion, or justice (in context), or another value I hold to be worthwhile.

      • Tomoko Endo

        Shinsengumi were terrolists,too.

      • Tomoko Endo

        I weep for their misary. We do not think that we can do the same.

      • Max Erimo

        THankyou very much for your interest and please forgive me for having assumed I knew what they thought. The honour of a man they respected is what they fought for. Oh forgive me again for assuming too much.
        I see no comparison with the acts of terror in Paris or anywhere around the world. My opinion only. Sorry if it is different from yours.
        You are telling me these terrorists fought for their Prophet’s honour. Maybe they did, but for a man who has been dead several hundred years, who they have never met. In no way does their actions warrant any comparison with the 47 samurai.
        I will refrain from any further comments on the subject.

      • tomado

        Please read what I wrote carefully. I did not compare them. I have no idea about them. I do know that a willingness to fight for what one believes in can be great or the worst thing in the world depending on what that thing is and the necessity, manner and repercussions of the fight. I am not offering an opinion of these particular people one way or another.

  • Tomoko Endo

    They are ‘rounin’, jobless samurai. So, they couldnot eat at all. So, they revenged to the enemy of their lord.
    Their lord was bullied by the upper,kira.
    The death was exceptional. At that time, ‘seppuku’ of lord on the ground was not normal.
    So, the unfavorable relationship with the upper,kira, yanagisawa and Shogun were suspected.

    • tomado

      Seppuku seems like a pretty nasty business and an unhealthy example generally. Let’s not honor it.

      • Tomoko Endo

        Now we think that we donot want to such a painful death. but in Japan every year, many committed sucide.

      • tomado

        Yes, it is sad. More counseling is needed. But economics and debt may be playing a part here. Anyway, I think those (like Mishima) who fetishize violence and suicide need to be marginalized in favor of more hopeful and less narcissistic role models.

      • Tomoko Endo

        Mishim, who knows his real spirit?I donot understand him at all at 21century.

        Edo is differnt from now.

        We have rolls as Japanese at the period, so we see the story with different eyes
        from foreigners.

  • J.P. Bunny

    Yokoso Japan. Come here and see our rich history. You’ll find it the just behind the giant Hello Kitty shop.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Another pathetic example of poor, or virtually non-existent, zoning laws.

    Undoubtedly due to the lobbying strength of property developers, the construction industry, etc.

  • Guest

    Japan seems to need to reclaim its pride in its culture. A sense of the grandeur of its past and the potential of its future go hand in hand.

    • tomado

      This is its “culture.” What can be more Japanese than samurai condominiums?

      • Guest

        Japan’s control over its culture and its pride in its history were hijacked when the US gave them a constitution without their consent at the end of WWII. Yes, the US had little choice. And yes, there are constructive lessons in it for Japan. But time to move on nonetheless.

      • Tomoko Endo

        We were defeated by them.Without consensus?

      • Guest

        Defeat in battle should not equate to the permanent annihilation of a great people. Not their culture nor their history nor their future nor their physical existence. By imposing such a radical change that has been maintained for so long the US inadvertently played a role in breaking Japan loose from its history/culture. In demoralizing it in terms of its own hopes for its future. And in so doing fed into the low birth rates that are decimating Japan’s population. You were defeated by a vastly larger foe. But that is but for a moment in time. Japan needs to reclaim its past. Learn whatever constructive lessons from that one defeat. And develop a uniquely Japanese hope and vision for its future that can revitalize the Japanese as a people with a special destiny. I would argue that the only real lesson that needs to be taken from WWII is to look for destiny in leadership and not in dominance. Japan has tremendous strengths and could play a very important role in leading mankind to better things. But not as a crippled vassal of the US.

      • Tomoko Endo

        Japanese politicias always say meaningless words and do bad for the nation.

        It is said, because of puppet gov.

        They may be foreigners. And we are fight against invasion.

      • tomado

        This is a little confusing. The problem is that Japan was a victim of the U.S. but needs to move on? This seems contradictory. I can never understand how a country can have emotions like “pride.” You mean collectively Japanese people don’t have control over a collective sense of pride because the U.S. robbed them of it? I don’t know about any of that. Seems really abstract to me.

  • Tomoko Endo

    Many respect their loyalty and they believe that the evil was killed by the good.
    ‘kanzencyouaku’,we believed it.
    The good win the race.
    In fact,they did ‘seppuku’

  • Tomoko Endo

    The places are ‘reijo霊場’ hallowed grounds. There are some this kinds of places in Japan.
    Samurai battle grouds or ‘seppiku’ places in Fukusima, many.
    ‘torii’ exist to soothe their souls,not decolations.
    I feel the temparature at ‘reijo’s are lower than the nomal places,when I enter the ‘torii’s.

    I’m a Japanese, but they are other’s graves. so we refrain from going to the graves.

  • MAAP

    Japan is a fantastic and magical place. It is full of wonders and amazing tales. Its history is long, bloodied, and magnificent. Its culture is resilient to the core. Its people is extremely focus, hard-working and respectful.

    Before, many people told me Japanese were xenophobic, I live in Japan and not once I have felt discriminated. However I have come to understand their fear to multiculturalism now that I read, scan and view worldwide events in which minority groups abuse of their rights and freedoms in developed and well established societies.

    This being said, Japan nowadays is in need of a great cultural renovation, perhaps the hardest one they will have to go through since the Shogunate, The Meiji Era, The Industrial revolution and since their ascension to world power as a developmental state.

    To those that believe that American imposed constitution on Japan after WWII was illegal and had insidious purposes as to keep Japan dependant on America itself, I must frankly agree with them. American imposition of a new constitution violated the very own principles in which America was founded and the very same principles it was fighting for in a second World War.

    The Japanese constitution should have been drafted and ordained through concessions given by the Japanese people themselves. Not by the same elite that was defeated during the war. Japanese people were robbed of their own ideals and their culture was effectively hijacked to some extent.

    Now, Japan needs to create their own path, Japan is greying and as many people see this on the bad side, it is also a great time to renew and rejuvenate a nation that looks forward for a new future success on a more sustainable society in which young people can continue to flourish.

    Best to all.

    • tomado

      Japan the victim! Love it.